Bitter 522

Dad went off to begin his investigation and Britta went downstairs to prepare for her tutor. She used the dining room as her study, arranging books and pens so she had easy access to everything she needed.

She sat waiting with her phone out. She always turned it to silent mode before a lesson, not that anyone ever called her, but it felt polite and professional. Since she had a few minutes, Britta decided to send Lin a text about the Peerless Online Warriors.

It didn’t feel important enough to bother Lin with a call. She was probably in the middle of doing something far more interesting than anything Britta had to talk about. Even though she had said it was okay to call her whenever and for whatever, Britta still felt awkward doing it.

The text just asked if Lin was aware of the team and if they had been sanctioned to make videos. Lin could answer in her own time. Britta put the phone away.

Professor Madley rang the doorbell at seven on the dot. He was always punctual. He set his walking stick in the corner before sitting down, his gaze wandering across the dining table with what Britta considered to be approval. He was a retired university teacher, so not technically a professor anymore, but the title suited him so well it would be odd to call him anything else.

“Can I get you anything before we start, Professor?” Britta asked. “A drink? Tea?”

“No, thank you.” He picked up a book and turned it over like he was making an appraisal of an antique. Britta had PDF versions of all her required textbooks, but the school still gave out the real things and it felt better having them here. It made it feel more intellectual. “I have to tell you, Britta, since our last lesson I decided to do a little research on my own time, to get a better idea of the kinds of questions they ask of the children of the current era. Don’t worry, there won’t be any extra charge.” His eyes twinkled mischievously.

“What kind of research?” She sat down opposite him. “Old exam papers?”

“Exactly, exactly. I used to be quite the thorough researcher in my day, even if I do say so myself. I approached the analysis of the unknown with a serious mind, and let me tell you, young woman, it was a very depressing experience.” He shook his head disparagingly.

The professor was an old man who liked to waffle a bit, but he was an expert on all matters related to physics and an excellent explainer of complicated concepts. His occasional forays into the state of the world were his roundabout way of warming up for the business of teaching.

“You don’t think they’re teaching the right things in the syllabus?”

“It’s not what they’re teaching, it’s how they’re teaching them. Learning by rote and regurgitating what you’ve memorised seemed to be the goal. Horrendous way to teach the young. And if you can’t remember the answer, not to worry, it’s multiple choice, so just have a guess.”

He seemed quite upset about what he’d discovered lurking inside the school curriculum.

“You don’t shape a young mind for greatness by filling it with knowledge, you have to teach it how to take small building blocks and construct beautiful structures from them, so it can learn to build for itself, to think for itself. Look at the great minds from our past who had only limited information, but from which they were able to extrapolate the mysteries of the universe, all without leaving the comfort of their study. You have to understand first principles and then go from there.”

Britta didn’t disagree, but it did seem a little impractical. “I suppose it would be too expensive to try and give everyone the time and attention it would take to understand everything from the ground up.”

“Ah, you’ve hit it on the head, there. Money. Always money. It hasn’t really changed as much as I’d like to think, has it?” He shook his head again, this time at himself. “The same in my day, people scrambling to find funding. The joy of discovery turned into the joy of winning another grant. At least there are still children like you, with good parents willing to invest in the future.”

Britta was sure her parents would love to know how well-regarded they were by the professor. She could tell him a few stories that might make him change his mind, though. They weren’t bad parents, by any means, but she often wondered if their sudden weekend breaks — which they’d been taking since she and her sister were old enough to be left alone — were motivated by romantic longing for each other or a desire to get away from their beloved offspring.

“Time and attention,” the professor muttered to himself. “They tell us the youth of today don’t have the attention span. I say it’s all an excuse to avoid trying. Look at these computer games they play, hours on end glued to a screen. The designers of those games have learned how to harness the attention of their customers. It’s a shame those people don’t use their abilities to educate people instead of tranquillizing them.”

School designed by video game devs? It would be an interesting thing to experience, but she doubted they would end up being much better. The bugs would be annoying.

“It’s almost as though somebody decided to only let the really clever boys and girls learn anything of value, and simply gave everyone else the illusion of good grades. First principles, that’s how you learn. Take the same basic knowledge that Pythagoras or Newton had, and reproduce their results from scratch, you see? It’s the only way to ensure true understanding. Great minds have shown us the heavens, but if you wish to stand on the shoulders of giants, you need to learn how to climb up there. Not simply relying on call and response testing like you’re training a sheepdog.” He smiled rather sadly. “Oh dear, just listen to me going on like some blasted conspiracy nut. I’m not one of those people who think the moon landings were faked, don’t worry. Now, where were we? Oh yes, the moon. Tell me, how would you work out how far the moon is from us, like our friend Aristarchus did?”

He led her through the basic calculations and a little ancient history to be able to create her own calculations. She might be living in the future, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t learn a thing or two from the past.

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